Were the state’s intelligence activities during the conflicts in Northern Ireland (1969-1998) and Colombia (1978-2016) ethical?

  • Eleanor Leah Williams

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The Northern Irish and Colombian conflicts are used as case studies internationally regarding how to combat terrorism. Nonetheless, key questions remain unanswered: how did state intelligence combat terrorism? Was this effort conducted ethically? This study uses Omand and Phythian’s Just Intelligence framework to analyse the ethicality of the state’s intelligence activities conducted in the Northern Irish (1969-1998) and Colombian (1978-2016) conflicts. It suggests that most state intelligence activities carried out during the Northern Irish and Colombian conflicts were ethical. State intelligence in both cases were least ethical at the beginning of conflicts, and in both cases the state behaved more ethically as the conflicts progressed. It emerges that some state intelligence agencies acted more ethically than others. However, the big questions are, why was this? Why was there a variation? Why did some actors behave more ethically than others? Why were there more ethical periods at different points of each conflict? Why did different state organisations do different things? This research argues that the ethicality of activities varied in both conflicts primarily because of a lack of guidance; lack of coordination between intelligence agencies; nuanced approaches regarding how to approach terrorism between different arms of the state; intentionally correcting behaviour and learning from mistakes; and political factors. The conclusions of this thesis matter for those studying the ethics of intelligence because practically it provides greater understanding of intelligence’s role in countering terrorism. Furthermore, it proves that some unethical intelligence procedures exacerbate conflicts and hinder peace processes from occurring. Therefore, it is necessary to revaluate how governments confront terrorism. Especially as, rightly or wrongly, the Northern Irish and Colombian conflicts are used as case studies internationally regarding how to combat terrorism. This thesis highlights the right lessons which should be drawn from the Northern Irish and Colombian cases.

Thesis is embargoed until 31 July 2028.
Date of AwardJul 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorAndrew Thomson (Supervisor) & Richard English (Supervisor)


  • Intelligence
  • security
  • Colombia
  • Northern Ireland
  • state

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